For nearly thirty years, Madonna has been treated like royalty in the world of popular music, which may be one reason it wasn’t too surprising when she decided to tackle the life of royalty in her second movie as a director, W.E..
The initials stand for “Wallis” and “Edward,” the latter being the temporary King of England who was forced to abdicate the throne in 1936 when he refused to break things off with his divorced American sweetheart, Wallis Simpson. Some Americans may already be familiar with this story from its inclusion in last year’s Oscar winner The King’s Speech. In Madonna’s movie, Simpson is played by rising star Andrea Riseborough, and her story is seen through the admiring eyes of a modern-day New Yorker, Abbie Cornish’s Wally Winthrop, who turns to Wallis for strength to help her get through an abusive marriage.
The film shows a lot of growth for Madonna as a filmmaker from her previous Filth and Wisdom and back in December, ComingSoon.net had a rare opportunity to be in the same room with Madonna and ask her some questions about the movie.
But before we get to that, we also had an exclusive interview with the film’s star, Andrea Riseborough, who has become one of Britain’s rising stars in the last two years. (Note: We spoke to her before it was announced that she would be in Joseph Kosinski’s Horizons with Tom Cruise, in case you were wondering.)
ComingSoon.net: I guess the question you’ll get the most is how this came about? Was a script sent to you?
CS: Did you get both sections of the script, including all the present-day stuff?
CS: Were you already familiar with Wallis?
CS: Is her story taught in school?
CS: I think more people (at least here) know her more because of “The King’s Speech” which came out after you shot the movie.
CS: What kind of preparation did you do? I know there’s a lot of newsreel footage of him but was there stuff of her you
CS: No, I know there’s newsreels of him because he was the king. I don’t know how much of her was out there.
CS: It’s nice when you can.
CS: At what point did you shoot the later scenes? Was there anything that was saved until the end like the scene at his death bed. Were you able to shoot that later?
CS: I can imagine. How much time did you have from getting the script to shooting to prepare for the role?
CS: Was your Thatcher for a TV show?
CS: Was that a similar process?
CS: I’m sure people ask about the accent but your voice gets deeper and it changes over the course of time so did you have recordings of her at different times of life?
CS: But as far as having her voice change, did having the make-up on and seeing yourself old, did it naturally
CS: Well, seeing yourself age
CS: But that must have contributed a lot to
CS: You’ve worked with a lot of different directors before so what was different about working with Madonna? Had you worked with a woman director before this?
CS: One of my favorite scenes was when you’re dancing at the party and the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” was playing over it, which was quite a counterpoint. During that scene, did you know that was going to be the music or was that something that came later in post-production?
CS: What was the other piece?
CS: You’ve been quite busy since doing this. I see that you have four movies you’ve either shot and you’re going to be at Sundance with one of them, “Shadow Dancer.” I know that’s about an IRA bomber?
CS: What are you generally looking for in a director or a script?
CS: It’s an interesting choice to go from “Dagenham” to “Brighton Rock” and then this, which are all period pieces, very British.
CS: The film still seems very British.
CS: It’s interesting to see the progression having seen a lot of these movies, so what’s next for you? Have you had the aspirations to do any big huge movies yet?
Riseborough was the opening act and now we’re onto the main event, Madonna herself, and though she rarely does such intimate interviews at a roundtable of journalists, we found her to be quite succinct and eloquent, carefully thinking about her answers before responding. Here are some of the highlights of what Ms. Madonna had to say about her film:
How she first found out about Wallis:
“I first found out about them in high school I guess, it was part of my English pre-war history. Doesn’t everybody hear about Edward VIII’s abdication in a broadstrokes kind of way? I didn’t then really think about it again until I moved to England and I was desperate to get to know the country that I had just moved to. I didn’t want to really feel like a foreigner, so I was very intrigued by the royal family and the history of the monarchy so I started reading about Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I and then leading up to the Victorian Era, and then essentially all the way up to George the V and then Edward the VIII and then I got stuck there because up until that point, there wasn’t really any kings that gave up the throne, certainly not for the woman he loved. That intrigued me and I was struggling with the idea of that, a man leaving this powerful position and trying to understand the nature of their love, their relationship, what they did for each other, what they gave to each other and what she had that was so special, intriguing and magnetic and powerful that he would make this sacrifice. That’s when the real deep research began.”
The controversy surrounding Wallis Simpson:
“Especially in England. Here, not so much. People don’t have so much invested about kings and queens and who gave up what and stuff like that. That really intrigued me that if you did bring up your name at a social gathering that inevitably an argument would usually occur whether she was a witch or not, a man or a woman, an ambitious person or a clever witty human being or whatever. I was intrigued by that polarization and that made me even want to investigate more.”
If she felt some kinship to Wallis:
“That’s obviously a big draw. When I read a lot of her letters, I felt like I could have written some of those letters, like ‘Can’t a girl just get a break?’ but I did (relate to her) and I think there was some sort of symbiotic connection to her character. There are lots of strange connections. In London, my house is right around the corner from Bryanston Court where she lived with Ernest, so I used to wander around her and loiter and hang around that building. When Wallis Simpson goes in that door and says, ‘Get a life’ and then slams the door, that’s literally around the corner from me. I used to hang out there like some strange stalker trying to imagine the prince-mobile driving up and parking out there for a 6:00 cocktail and what it all must have been like at that time.”
Her thoughts on the attraction of Edward to Wallis:
“I discovered so many interesting, disturbing things like in those days, the first-born son of the Royal Family, the mother is actually meant to treat him in the coldest way without any affection or any love, so they’re prepared to be the King, because it’s country and duty before all. In order to have that kind of mindset, you can’t be an emotional creature. Your behavior cannot be informed by emotion; it has to be informed by sense of duty. Everyone is really cold to you and very formal with you, so I think when he met Wallis Simpson, I think he was really attracted to her irreverence, even though I still think she was very courteous and polite to him, she did it all with a wink and a smile, and she loved to dance. I think the other thing he loved about her was because he was raised with servants and staff, but when he went to her hours, she would run into the kitchen–because her mother was a cook–and she would whip things up in the kitchen and bring them out and he couldn’t get his head around the fact she would make the cocktails and the food and put it on the table. I think he really liked that and there’s something very maternal and nurturing about her and feminine, and I think all of those things were a big draw to him.”
Whether she felt more at home writing or directing:
“Writing is simpler – there’s less people involved and you have a lot more freedom when you’re writing obviously. There’s not a lot of people giving you their two cents. When you’re on the set of a movie there’s thousands of people around and there’s a clock ticking and a lot of things you have to get done in a short period of time. I think the freedom is really in the writing and then in the directing, you have to try and be in two places at the same time – one is in your practical shoes. ‘I have a certain amount of time, I have to get a certain amount of work done,’ and the other part is, ‘I need to be able to also be in this dream-like state where I’m allowing myself to channel this energy and capture a dream.’ That was always a challenging balance to strike.”
Wallis dancing to the Sex Pistols:
“When I first started writing the script, there were a lot of different points of view, lots of different titles and for a while, my working title was ‘The Punk Rock King,’ because I was really focused a lot on him and his behavior and how irreverent he was and how he broke all the rules and he pushed away from convention. He didn’t dress the way he was supposed to dress and how he didn’t date the people he was supposed to date. He did drink Benzedrine cocktails and he did have parties and he loved hanging out with Americans. He wanted to fight in the way, he wanted to affect change in the world around him, he wanted to bring new energy into Windsor Castle and the royal world. So many things about him were unconventional.”
Whether “The King’s Speech” coming out first helps her movie or not:
“It does because it introduces the idea and it shows the other side of the story, because it starts off with the kind who is suddenly thrust into this role of king when he had no preparation for it whatsoever, and Edward was the dashing debonair one, the one whom everyone loved and who could speak in front of people. He was the people’s prince and his little brother was shy and he had a speech impediment and he was really awkward. He didn’t want that part at all, and neither did his wife. In fact, when they were dating, she didn’t want to marry him and Edward was instrumental in putting them together, because she didn’t want to marry a royal because even though she was an aristocrat, she didn’t want to be in that world. She didn’t want to be in the limelight, she didn’t want to go to any ambassadorial functions. She didn’t want that life and Edward talked her into it. ‘But he’s my little brother and you’ll never be expected to do any of those things.’ He played Cupid in their relationship and they were really, really close.
“While I’m happy about ‘The King’s Speech’ because it does set up my movie in so many ways, and it gives people a reference point, the one thing besides the fact I didn’t like was how Wallis Simpson was portrayed, they didn’t show how close the brothers were. They really were very close and it was a heartbreaking experience for both of them when he was exiled and they weren’t really allowed to communicate anymore. I felt bad about that because I knew that wasn’t the truth. I thought the relationship between he and the speech therapist was the winning aspect of the film. In terms of how it sets up my movie, I think it’s good because people see it and they go, ‘Oh, right, that’s that guy and that’s what happened before the became the king.'”
Her thoughts on people’s perceptions of the film:
“It’s been at many festivals now – Venice, Toronto, London and I had a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and I know a lot of people have seen it and written about it, though I have not read anything anyone’s written about it. I think people will like it or not like it.”
Madonna’s W.E. opens on Friday, February 3 in select cities. Two days later, Madonna performs the half-time show at the Super Bowl, surely not a coincidence?